The way some of us go on about some foreign media practitioners, you’d think we do not appreciate any report from an outsider. Truth be told, we do. We know that the detailed knowledge of Rwanda that some of them display puts our chest-thumping know-all assertions to shame.
An example is an American author and journalist, Philip Gourevitch. But for him, I’d not have known that the cycling sport meant anything to any Rwandan. Nor would I have known that the sport could have a connection with ikijuguti (wooden ‘bicycle’).
Before Rwanda got its act together, I used to visit the lakeside town of Gisenyi often. I remember that those wooden bicycles used to be a nightmare to motorists, as they hurtled down the road to Gisenyi at unimaginable speeds, laden with huge loads of merchandise. Woe unto you as a motorist if such a missile veered into your way. ‘Cyclist’, ikijuguti, load – three 100-kg sacks of potatoes, say! – exploded into you and turned you all into smithereens.
You, cyclist, ikijuguti and sacks all became a cruddy cocktail of death and destruction. When Government put a stop to the menace, parents and motorists heaved a collective sigh of relief. However, the young cyclists were not happy that they were going to lose the modest income they made from that hazardous ‘trade’, transporting goods for a fee. And that the energy they had honed during the practice of that trade was going to waste.
Gasore Hategeka was only one of many. Having no support and no other means of survival, and with education completely out of his mind as he saw it as only for the ‘rich’, Hategeka saw that wooden death-trap as his only path to fulfilling his life ambition of one day owning a ‘Muzungu’ bicycle.
By putting aside most of what he had made every day, he would have in the end been able to buy a true bicycle and fulfil his quest for the joy of riding it and also use it as a taxi to ferry passengers around his home or to Gisenyi, for a living. That had been his future, even if a future that was no future.
Meanwhile, in a distant land that Hategeka had remotely heard people talk about as ‘Amerika’, there lived a Muzungu known as Jonathan Boyer. Boyer may have had an idea of the existence of Africa but, on his part, he had never heard the remotest talk of Rwanda. As he says, he had never heard about Rwanda and what happened to the country because he never watched TV, never listened to radio and never read any newspaper or magazine.
American Boyer as a young man had also had the cycling passion, just like Rwandan Hategeka at this point in time, without necessarily sharing Hategeka’s desire to show it off as a symbol of prosperity. He liked cycling for the opportunity the exercise offered him of forgetting his life of dejection. In the end, however, he developed the ‘therapeutic resort’ into a sport and competed in many international cycling races, including Tour de France.
Unfortunately, when time came for him to retire and he returned to his home in USA, his again became a life of dejection and he seemed to have no future.
It is at this point that the fates of the two men converged and they embarked on together forging a future for themselves and others and for country – the country of Rwanda.
For the details you’ll need to read Gourevitch’s elaborate article, but suffice it to say that when Boyer came to Rwanda, he found a reserve of raw energy in Hategeka and other boys like him and set to work. He started a cycling team and put the boys through the mincing-machine, giving them the hard drills that they needed to become international cyclists.
Today, the two men are part of Team Rwanda, Boyer as coach and Hategeka as sportsman. In Boyer, Hategeka has found a teacher who has shown him that he can earn a living out of the passion of his life and, at the same time, contribute to building, and making a name for, his country. In Hategeka, Boyer has found a pupil who has shown him that he can give meaning to life with the passion of his life and, at the same time, be recognised in his country for passing on that good old American largesse.
The team counts twelve cyclists and one of them, Adrien Niyonshuti, has turned professional and is racing for MTN Cycling of South Africa. Many others like Gasore Hategeka, Innocent Sibomana and new entrants like Nathan Byukusenge are hot on his heels.
From a country that had never known cycling as a sport, today annual Tour du Rwanda is a respected on the world sporting calendar. For giving all Rwandans equal opportunity and the liberty to chase after their dreams and for opening up to the world, Rwanda is able to draw the best out of everybody, Rwandan and foreigner, and also give of herself without favouring any party.
Once known as a divided people in isolation, Rwandans today are eager to embrace, and grow with, all in the world. As Jonathan Boyer says: “This is the land of second chances.”
Rwanda assimilates all and is ready to be assimilated. It is only by being open to all positive forces that this is happening. Politics closed? Nah!
Come tomorrow, 26th November 2011, in this year’s Tour du Rwanda, may the best sportsman win!